The Four-Day Getaway
By Darren Dencklau
I needed some time away from it all — the city, the house, the phone, the computer, the traffic, the pollution. Everything manmade was taking its toll on my attitude, not to mention the long gray dreary Seattle winter. The woods were calling my name. A few days prior to Memorial Day weekend it was decided that a self-supported solo bike trip was exactly what I needed to reboot the system.
I decided on further exploring the Iron Horse Trail (IHT), a gravel and dirt road that once was the path of the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul Railroad. Off limits to all motor vehicles, it stretches for more than 100 miles from North Bend, Wash., to the Columbia River and beyond. After riding a section of it from Cle Elum to Seattle last summer, I wanted to find out how the trail was further east. The plan was to start in North Bend and pedal to Vantage, Wash., a tiny town located on the Columbia's banks, then ride back. I had four days to do it.
In about an hour, my Gunnar Crosshairs made its semi-annual backyard morph from commuter bike to full-on touring rig. Switching out the wheelset and mounting front and rear racks is a quick process now, as I’ve had plenty of practice. I try to keep everything organized and ready to go at a moment’s notice and have discovered that the key is to have two sets of wheels with tubes and tires already mounted and store the racks with all of their parts taped to them; simply throw the bike on the stand, mount, adjust the brakes, and there you have it.
A quick trip to the grocery store for provisions and then to my local outdoor shop to purchase a gas canister, dehydrated food, extra tubes and a patch kit took about an hour. I returned home to pack my sleeping bag, mat, tent, stove and new canister, food, change of clothes, tools, repair kit, first aid kit, extra set of gloves, rain gear, and a couple of flasks filled with Pendleton Whisky, an effective pain reliever. I was road-ready in no time.
The morning started early. I arrived in North Bend intent on parking my van somewhere in town and then ride up the road to Rattlesnake Lake where I would connect with the IHT. Suddenly remembering how long the descent was the last time I rode from the lake en route to Seattle, parking at the Cedar Falls trailhead made more sense. Upon arrival, I dropped $20 in an envelope and placed the camping permit on the dashboard. Since the permit asked for the campsite number where I would be staying at overnight, and not knowing exactly where I’d end up, I simply wrote, “Riding my bike over the pass, camping location unknown.”
After dialing in everything and taking a quick test lap around the parking lot, I headed out. Soon after departure I came upon a man pedaling a 1990s era Specialized mountain bike with a BOB trailer towing behind it. His trailer had a ton of gear in it and on top laid a fishing pole.
“Fancy seeing you out here,” I said as I came abreast with him, “Where are you heading?"
One of the many trestles found on the Iron Horse Trail, which once was the path of the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul Railroad.
“I am heading to Boston,” he explained as he attempted to catch his breath, sweat dripping profusely from his brow. He was dressed in camouflage shorts and a tank top, with no helmet. “This is something I’ve been wanting to do for years but couldn’t find the time ... I have to get off and walk...”
As he was walking I rode alongside him and we talked more. His name is Trevor and he had just been released from the National Guard after serving two tours in Afghanistan. We discussed military life and I shared with him my experience in the Marines. People tend to open up when they are by themselves and on a cycling adventure. Even non-cyclists are curious when they see someone loaded down with gear, pushing themselves to destinations unknown. Ten minutes later I bid Trevor farewell and wished him luck on his journey.
I rode steadily the next 18 miles to the Snoqualmie Tunnel, which was supposed to be open as of May 1. It wasn’t. Thankfully, I met an older gentleman who was hiking with his family earlier that day. He told me of an access road that leads to a radio tower located just west of the tunnel. He knew about it because he rode my intended route years before and came upon the same closure. Looking at him, I could sense that he had some great stories of his own, many of them involving riding bicycles.
I took his suggestion and carefully maneuvered the talus-laden descent down to I-90 and then pedaled to the summit. The interstate detour was a short four miles, complete with semi trucks whizzing by at 75 mph. Inside the cabs the drivers were attempting to keep their speed to the top.
Hopping back on the trail in Hyak, I came upon several snowdrifts in the shadier areas behind Keechelus Lake. East of the lake I happened upon a detour sign at Stampede Pass Road. Apparently the tunnel further east of there was also closed. Taking the alternative route put me right back onto I-90, where I was once again welcomed by loud and fast-moving traffic, road debris and uneven asphalt.
By mid-afternoon I reached Lake Easton, about 15 miles north of Cle Elum, where I decided to settle in and camp for the night. After making a dinner of dehydrated Chana Masala atop a rock outcropping overlooking the lake, I found an incognito spot right on the water where I pitched my tent and watched the sun fade away on the horizon, falling fast asleep shortly thereafter.
Early the following day I set out after refilling my water bottles at the adjacent campground, deciding I would make breakfast somewhere on the trail.
Just outside of Cle Elum I found myself completely alone in my thoughts. There were no people or even a manmade structure anywhere in sight and the mountains surrounding the valley looked as majestic as any I’d seen before. At that moment I began laughing hysterically, realizing that I was experiencing exactly what I was searching for on this tour — open space, freedom and isolation.
Under an old trestle on the banks of the Yakima River I made a breakfast of dehydrated scrambled eggs with bacon and brewed some coffee. All morning the clouds had been gathering and were threatening to release precipitation, but as I looked eastward I saw nothing but blue sky and my goal — the Columbia River was flowing somewhere beyond my line of sight and I was determined to make it there by nightfall.
Pedaling at a brisk pace, I made good time all morning until the trail started getting significantly rougher, the gravel becoming noticeably deeper, grabbing my 37c tires and pulling them back and forth into the ruts. It was going to be a long day.
I later came upon another detour sign. Tunnels 46 and 47, located between South Cle Elum and Thorp, were both closed indefinitely due to safety concerns. I reluctantly got on the paved road running adjacent to the trail. To my surprise I was greeted with a 14-mile stretch of incredibly smooth asphalt that wound through the countryside, highlighted by very light automobile traffic.
Crossing I-90 on an overpass, I paused midway and watched the fast moving and seemingly endless line of automobiles traveling east and west. Many were pulling recreational vehicles like boats, motorcycles, jeeps, and other gas-powered contraptions. I thought about how expensive gas is and how much money it would cost to fill up a giant RV and whatever else that was towed behind it. There I was, a long way from home on my own recreational excursion, depending only on my legs and intuition to carry me to the next destination and feeling empowered.
Somewhere west of Thorp I exited the road and hopped back on the Iron Horse Trail where it was slow going due to a lack of use, upkeep and recent equestrian traffic. After sluggishly bouncing my way east for some time, I decided to ride on the Old Thorp Highway, which ended up being a great stretch of road all the way to Ellensburg, where I planned on having lunch.
Once in Ellensburg I found a tiny Italian restaurant and sat down to a mid-afternoon feast of chicken cheese steak. Almost satiated, the next stop was at a popular café for a quick coffee and dessert to fuel up for the remaining 30 miles I needed to complete before reaching the mighty Columbia.
I knew the trail from that point on would be extremely rough on anything besides a mountain bike so I opted for the asphalt once again. Also, there were several horse trailers parked at the IHT trailhead east of town, which meant lots of ruts and stop and go riding.
The Vantage Highway from Ellensburg starts off with a wide shoulder through open farmland for the first 10 miles before the terrain becomes more arid and the sagebrush replaces the green pastures. The wind was at my back, helping me along the increasingly narrower shoulder. Semi trucks hauling freshly cut hay use the road to avoid the interstate, and thankfully most of them gave me plenty of space while passing as I hugged the side of the road.
At about mile 18, surrounded by giant wind turbines, the highway begins its sharp descent down to where the river cuts through the land. The next 20 minutes went by quickly and I observed the mile markers approach more rapidly, counting down my progress — 9, 8, 7, 6, 5...
To my disbelief, I made it to Vantage with hours of daylight to spare. To celebrate, I bought a bomber of microbrew at the gas station and headed down to the water for a swim, thinking it would be as warm as the temperature was outside. My hopes were quickly dashed, as the river was colder than the beverage was inside its bottle — the “swim” didn’t last long.
That night I decided to stay at an official campground. The Vantage Kampground KOA was empty, as all the Memorial Day revelers had packed up earlier that morning. I was greeted by a fellow named Chris, who not only offered to let me camp for free because I “pedaled all the way there from Seattle,” but came back minutes later and presented me with a key.
“The wind is supposed to pick up tonight, and we have plenty of vacant cabins right now,” he explained.
Politely turning him down and thanking him for his offer, I declared that it would be cheating since I was trying to be self-sufficient. Later that evening, the wind didn’t just “pick up,” its 50 mph sustained wrath serenaded me all night long, making my tent sound like a freight train passing through town. The walls of my paper-thin shelter caved in all around me and air flowed in and out of it like an accordion. I don’t think I slept for more than an hour total.
To read about the final two days of “The Four-Day Getaway,” which were not nearly as easy going as the first two were, be sure to pick up the August issue of Bicycle Paper.